Parlez-vous anglais?

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One of the reasons I was so keen to move to London is its access to Europe; there are so many places I’ve never been that I want to see, and the first of these was Paris.

It’s so easy to get to Paris from London. There’s a train, the Eurostar, that takes you out of Waterloo station directly into Gare du Nord, one of the main stations across the channel (it also takes you directly to Brussels and indirectly to places such as Amsterdam, Antwerp, and tons of other places through northern Europe).

Here are some of my observations about Paris:

1) The people are much nicer than rumored, and I speak very little French. A “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?” and a sad smile over the fact that you don’t speak the language always engendered a polite response, and often a very friendly and helpful one.

2) Some of the people there are way too friendly, specifically the men. It started with the guy selling crap to tourists by the Eiffel Tower who told me he loved me, followed me down the street and tried to hold my hand, and ended with the guy in a suit by the fountain at the Jardin des Tuileries who got angry when I told him I couldn’t talk to him because I had to catch a train back to London. In between were more guys selling tourist crap, random older men who would smile to the point of leering and try to make eye contact while passing me on the street and the guy who tried to get me to ride on the back of his motorcycle (I think that’s what he was saying, it was in French). My favorite was the guy in the Catacombs:

Back in the late 1700s the cemeteries in Paris were overflowing with bodies and it was becoming a health hazard as disease was spreading through the population living nearby. They decided to move the old bones into the limestone quarries underneath the city, extensively excavated in Roman times (they were what provided all the building material for the world there above ground). So for many years caravans at night would transport anonymous remains down there until an estimated 6 million were interred.

The bishop presiding over the re-burials decided the bones should be placed in an orderly manner in the newly formed ossuaries and instructed the workers to make patterns from the bones. I am positive this was done with a morbid sense of humor, as, at least along the part of the catacombs open to the public, smiling skulls form patterns amidst piles and piles and piles of femurs.

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The place is spooky. Spooooky. It’s why I wanted to go there. It’s also why there was no way I was going in alone.

The entrance to the catacombs is a simple black door right across from the Denfert-Rochereau Metro station. You go in, pay your admittance fee, then walk down 86 spiral steps to two exhibition rooms with posters depicting the history of the quarries and how they became the catacombs. After that you walk through labyrinthine passageways, dark and dank and echoing, leading to the ossuary.

There weren’t many people visiting the catacombs that day, which I would usually find swell as I hate crowds. But, like I said, I was going to need some other people walking down there at the same time I was. I pretended to read a history of limestone quarrying in France over and over again waiting for the only other two people in there to head down the passage first. Apparently they found limestone fascinating because they spent forever in front of each placard. “Just go already,” I muttered under my breath, until, finally, they did. I gave them about a 20 second head start and then plunged in after them.

Walking down those hallways was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Electric lights are set up every few yards, and while they allow you to see they don’t extinguish the feeling of darkness all around you. There was no one behind me and this made me nervous because I could swear someone was following. I was getting ready to see Gollum or the fucking Balrog.

Instead, beyond the people in front of me I saw a flashlight beam. One of the catacomb employees was coming from the other direction. He said, “Bonjour” to the couple in front of me and then stopped to talk to me.

“You speak English?” he said. (They always seemed to know, even before I said a word. It was weird.)

“Yes,” I said. The people in front of me were moving out of sight.

“So, you’re from the U.S.?” he said.

“I am,” I said, peering over his shoulder at the corner around which the only other people in the entire catacombs had just turned, “but I’m living in London.”

“Do you know the history of the catacombs?” he asked.

“Uh, they were limestone quarries…” I began rattling off all the interesting facts I’d learned about limestone while waiting to walk with the PEOPLE WHO I COULDN’T EVEN HEAR ANYMORE BECAUSE THEY’D GOTTEN SO FAR AHEAD.

“No,” he interrupted, “I mean there are six million people buried down here.” He looked at me meaningfully. I looked back at him meaningfully too, but I think our meanings were different.

“So, do you want to get some coffee or something later?” he asked.

Oh dear God. I was going to have to walk the rest of the way ALONE because this guy wanted to hit on me?!?

“Uh, I can’t,” I said, “I have reservations tonight and all this stuff planned for tomorrow…”

“Oh, ok,” he said. “Well, enjoy Paris!” And he walked away, back the way I’d come, his flashlight beam bouncing in carefree bobs until it disappeared in the distance.

Great.

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In retrospect it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It was only a short distance to the chamber before the ossuary where a handful of people were hanging out, reading displays on those buried there before disappearing through a door under a sign reading, “Stop! You are entering the empire of death!” But those minutes alone in the passageway were hairy.

More observations:

3) The food, of course, was fabulous. Everything from the sweet, chocolate chip baguette (I cannot remember for the life of me what it was called) to the lovely dinners I had at little restaurants, it was all wonderful.

4) You need an entire vacation to even make a dent in the Louvre. I didn’t even go near the Mona Lisa. I figure she’s like the Paris Hilton of the art world, famous for simply being famous, and there were many other, less crowded, exhibits to see. My favorite, I think, was the Rubens room.

5) Foucault’s Pendulum is AWESOME.

6) The ducks in Paris are way too friendly too. After the Louvre closed it was a nice evening and I had a few hours before I had to catch my train, so I hung out for a while by the fountain at the Jardin des Tuileries. It’s a beautiful garden where the Tuileries Palace once stood (in both Paris and London there are two events that seem to scar the the soul of each city. In London it’s World War II and the Great Fire of 1666. In Paris it is World War II and the French Revolution. The Tuileries Palace was destroyed in 1781 during the Revolution.). I was reading a book in one of the chairs, enjoying the end of the day, when I felt something peck my foot. I looked down and these two ducks, a male and a female, were staring up at me. “Shoo,” I said, and went back to reading.

A few minutes later another peck at my foot. It didn’t hurt at all, it was as if someone was tapping my shoulder. I looked down and again it was the ducks. “Go away!” I said. There were plenty of ducks around the fountain and all were very tame, but I’ve never seen anything like these two. A girl nearby tried to get the two to come play with her but they wanted nothing to do with it. They just walked around under my chair and when they came out looked up at me with unblinking duck eyes.

I figured if I ignored them they’d go away, so I went back to reading my book. And indeed they seemed to lose interest, eventually submitting to playing with the girl who actually wanted their attention. I read for a while, then suddenly felt something poking at my right hand pocket. I screamed, startled, and looked down and there again were the freaking ducks. Everyone started laughing, except for the ducks who just stared at me. I said to the ducks, “That’s it, I’m going home,” and headed off to find my train (pausing of course for the suited guy who got annoyed when I told him I had a train to catch).

There were too many things I didn’t have time to see, like the Sacré Coeur or the Musée d’Orsay, and I obviously have to go back. The ducks will be happy to see me.

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~ by kellly333 on March 17, 2007.

2 Responses to “Parlez-vous anglais?”

  1. Dear Kelly, Happy St.Patrick !!! I hope you are not missing NY at this time. It’s amazing, Paris in a few hours. I’ve enjoyed your journey through your writting.

    Best wishes,

    Elena

  2. Kelly– it’s Karen Ferriere (formerly Antoci). I just got back from Paris last night. I went to the catacombs by myself last time we were in Paris and I lOVED it. None of my husband’s friends or relatives have been there. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Paris. I took a ton of pictures. I’m glad you liked it too. Next time you should go to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

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